Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, following up his March 18 New York Times tirade against Israeli settlers and several other targets (“Israel’s Self-Inflicted Wounds”) doubled down with a second op-ed in the Times on Aug. 13 with an attack on Orthodox Jewish influence on Israeli politics (“Israel, This Is Not Who We Are”).
Many opponents of Lauder’s views on Israel have taken pen in hand and pointed out where they believe Lauder went wrong in each of his articles. Other authors attacked Lauder for what they (correctly) saw as his hypocritical claim that “democratic and egalitarian dimensions of the Jewish democratic state are being tested” when he was not elected to his position as president of the WJC in a general election of its membership. He has been president of the organization for more than 11 years and it seems he faces no term limits.
Let us examine the Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who perhaps to most, if not nearly all, American Jews was the least recognizable name in the pantheon of important heroes from early Zionist history mentioned in Lauder’s essay.
Lauder wrote, “Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir always emphasized the need to combine Jewish nationalism with universal humanism.
“So now, when Israel’s government appears to be tarnishing the sacred value of equality, many supporters feel it is turning its back on Jewish heritage, the Zionist ethos and the Israeli spirit.”
Thanks are due to Lauder for rightfully ranking Jabotinsky where he belongs among the builders of Zionism and the Jewish state. Jabotinsky (1880-1940) was a Zionist leader, orator and writer who founded the Jewish Legion during World War I, as well as the Haganah self-defense units in Jerusalem in 1920.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s father Benzion served as Jabotinsky’s personal secretary just after the outbreak of World War II.
In the May 15, 1981 edition of the Jewish journal Sh’ma, Professor Daniel J. Elazar, a noted political science scholar, recalled Jabotinsky’s legacy and wrote: “Would there be serious public commemoration of the 100th birthday of Ze’ev Jabotinsky had it not been for the fact that the Likud won the election in Israel in 1977? Not likely.
“For 30 years and more, Jabotinsky was one of those non-persons in Israel and the Jewish world. … The ruling Labor Party made him a non-person for the same reasons that it portrayed Menachem Begin and his supporters as uncivilized fascists — it is easier to beat the opposition by painting it as irrelevant, intolerable and non-existent, until it is too strong to be dismissed.”
In the intervening elections the next generation of leaders, including Ehud Olmert, Benny Begin, Tzipi Livni, Uzi Landau, Dan Meridor and many other central figures in Israel’s political life up until today (and by contrast, J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami), had a parent that was an active supporter of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and was involved with the Irgun paramilitary organization his followers created. It can be noted that Rahm Emanuel’s father, too, was an Irgunist.
What Jabotinsky would advocate given today’s current events is often debated in Israel.
It is a fair question to ask if Israel would even exist today if it were not for Jabotinsky and the sacrifices of the Irgun he molded and inspired. That question would be impossible to ask, though, if Begin had never won power in 1977.
What were Jabotinsky’s vital contributions? His words and ideas animated a generation of young Jews to resist the Nazis, rescue fellow Jews from Hitler’s forces and fight for the freedom of Israel as soldiers in the Irgun and Stern Group/LEHI. Later, the movement for freedom for Soviet Jewry both in the United States and inside the Soviet Union itself was led by Jabotinsky Zionists.
Since 1977, things have fundamentally changed in Israel: Not only Menachem Begin’s Likud but also the National Union, Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu parties have all connected themselves directly to the legacy of Jabotinsky, as do several smaller parties. No party claims to continue in the tradition of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, or his protégé, Golda Meir.
Their secularism and socialism lost all its chic long ago.
Perhaps Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu made the most of invoking his name and attitude (even if that party is the least obvious in terms of its allegiance to Jabotinsky’s ideology) when it described itself as “a national movement with the clear vision to follow in the brave path of Ze’ev Jabotinsky.”
What could be meant by this “brave path?”
A strong national defense, national pride, connection to authentic Jewish observance, love of the land of Israel, and belief in both free markets and modern democratic values.
Jabotinsky wrote his greatest novel about the biblical champion Samson. In the most well-known passage of the book, Samson declares: “Tell [the Jewish people] three things in my name, and not two:
They must get iron [i.e. armaments]; they must choose a king; and they must learn to laugh.”
What Jabotinsky meant in part by learn to laugh was the necessary development of confidence on a national level.
With rapidly changing Middle East realities and the abuse of self-proclaimed friends such as Lauder, Israelis may need that message now more than ever. Or do they? After all, smart Israelis know that Lauder’s name won’t ever make it into future Israeli history textbooks, while Jabotinsky’s importance grows every year.
Moshe Phillips is the national director of Herut North America’s U.S. section. Herut is an international movement for Zionist pride and education.